Alistair and Jonny Brownleee
A week after the Closing Ceremony, Tim Heming went for a ride with the Brownlee brothers to discover how life has changed for the Olympic medallists…
We were treated like stars. I went out a couple of times but I was really tired after my race. Alistair’s more hardcore than me
“Sometimes I think it might be better not to do very well at the Olympics. I feel really unfit.” The burden of Games bling has finally worn out Alistair Brownlee, something the world’s best triathletes have been trying – and failing – to do for the best part of four years. A fortnight on from running the finest 10km in triathlon history, had the secret to dethroning Britain’s first Olympic Champion in the sport revealed itself? Entrap those pesky Brownlee boys with London socialites as varied as Prince Harry, Ian Thorpe and Arnold Schwarzenegger and ask “Where’s Yorkshire placed in the medal table?” every five minutes. If only Gomez et al had thought of that one.
But while that hard-earned endurance base might be sapped by the bright lights of the BBC studios in Stratford, the status quo can now be resumed in the safe haven of the Yorkshire Dales. Except it can’t, because Olympic fever has, quite rightly, gripped these parts, too. From heptathlete Jessica Ennis to boxer Nicola Adams, cyclist Ed Clancy to rower Andrew Triggs Hodge, the White Rose won’t be hasty in forgetting its sons and daughters’ London 2012 achievements. “It’s strange,” Alistair admits. “Both of us thought that when we left London we’d leave behind our lives as famous Olympic athletes. We come back to Leeds and oh, no, it’s the same. But on the whole people are quite respectful. It’s just nice to come home, sit on the settee and reflect.”
Normality also means training, and lots of it. And today’s recovery set includes hooking up with the Gatorade Hit Squad for the second half of a 45-mile round trip from Headingley. 220 has taken the domestique role and could easily be mistaken for Stuart Hayes in Hyde Park… during the first part of the bike leg… where he sat off the back of the bunch… doing very little work. The undulating route rolls us through Ilkley and into the Dales, where we chance upon Bolton Abbey’s aptly-named Cavendish Pavillion, plus a surplus of coffee, cake and autograph hunters waiting for the arrival of the boys at this recently Tweeted ‘secret’ location.
The drill is simple. Any cyclist spotted sporting a green drinks bottle is rewarded with sports drink nutrition merchandise. There are a lot of them, most moving too swiftly in the opposite direction to stop, the few that do suspicious of ‘freebies’ – this is Yorkshire, remember. It’s a lot of fun, though. We’re soaking up the rays on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the sweat rate soaring when there’s a pair of Brownlees pushing the pace.
A queue forms quickly at the Cav Pav. Everyone’s a fan, all keen to greet the local superstars on their homecoming. The relaxed aura that follows the Brownlees round the ITU circuit is undisturbed; confident northerners, who, when it comes to their sport, know they’re just that bit better than everyone else.
Having employed good friend Alec Duffield as right-hand-man, it’s a slicker operation these days, although that professionalism doesn’t extend to remembering the medals and Alec is hastily dispatched to HQ. He returns swinging a Tesco carrier bag.
The ride back picks its way through the scenic foothills of the Dales. The boys peel off for home and will join us later for interviews once the Boardmans are racked and they have run the final half-hour to the hotel. Triathlon is their lifestyle and over drinks in the bar, it’s time to look back on the biggest race of their lives.
“The most surprising thing was that there were no surprises,” explains Alistair. “Everyone talks about the Olympics being a different race where the favourite never does well, but it was almost textbook.” As with most things tri Jonny tends to agree with big brother but has extra praise for the Spaniard that split them on the podium. “Gomez was obviously very good,” he says. “Better than I expected. I knew I was fitter than I was in Kitzbühel but he was lot fitter.”
The day had started no differently to any other race on the ITU circuit. But that changed as soon as they rode over the Serpentine bridge to warm up on the course. “It was ridiculous,” Alistair explains. “All these other athletes that no-one is paying any attention to, then we cycle up and the crowd goes absolutely crazy.”
After a stunning start, dragged through by the remarkable sub-17-minute 1,500m speed of Richard Varga, the Brownlees secured a break on the bike. “I always thought we were going to get caught, though,” explains Alistair, who then tucked in behind Britain’s domestique, Stuart Hayes, before launching an attack on the final bike lap. “I just saw an opportunity,” he shrugs. “It had been very fast and then it slowed up. Stu had spent a lot of time at the front and Jonny near the front. I wanted other people to come into action.”
By then the real story of the race had started to unfold. Jonny had a 15-second penalty for mounting his bike too early in transition. Gold looked to be gone, his mind as well as his body was racing. “My first reaction was, ‘It’s Ali’. My second reaction, ‘That’s me – that’s not good,’” he reflects. “Third reaction? ‘I might come fourth, that’s awful.’ Then I looked at it again and thought: ‘When I hit transition I’ve only got one option: Just run as fast as I can.’ It simplified the race for me. Could I have come second? Straight after the race, I thought: ‘No, definitely not. Gomez had got me already so it didn’t make a difference.’ As time moves on I think maybe I would have pressured him a little more. I’m still very happy with bronze.”
It was a glorious Olympic Tuesday for British triathlon, the first medals for Team GB in eight race attempts since the sport made its bow in Sydney 2000. And it was also the perfect antidote to the heartbreak of Saturday morning where Britain’s other golden hope, Helen Jenkins, ran through the pain, fuelled by countless cortisone injections, to finish fifth. Despite being the best-placed finish ever by a British woman at the Olympics – beating Michelle Dillon’s sixth in Athens – it was still a bitter disappointment.
Did the Brownlees learn anything from the race? “Only that she went through hell leading into it,” says Jonny, who only found out Helen’s closely guarded secret a couple of days before she dived into the Serpentine. “The coaches didn’t want us to be panicked by Helen not performing normally, so they warned us,” Alistair explains. “They were concerned we’d see the Olympics as something different when we just wanted it to be like any other race.”
Alistair Brownlee takes most things in his stride but London 2012 was always going to be different. “Triathlon is quite a niche sport and at the Olympics it explodes,” he says. “This was a completely new world for us. For the 10 days leading up to our race, we’d been watching everybody in the BBC studio and then suddenly we’re there.”
It was during the BBC slot that Alistair promised to buy the beers for his plucky comrades, a gesture that could also extend to Slovakian super swimmer and training partner in St Moritz, Richard Varga. So did he oblige? “Well, to be honest, we got everything free,” Alistair admits. “The first night we met [Ian] Thorpey, he was very drunk at the time. And we went to dinner with Arnie.”
“Then we met Prince Harry – he was very knowledgeable about triathlon,” Jonny adds. “We were treated like stars. I went out a couple of times but I was really tired after my race. Alistair’s more hardcore than me.”
Neither can hold a candle to the exploits of Varga, though. “On the last night there are the countries’ parties after the closing ceremony,” Alistair reveals. “Mr Varga gatecrashed the British one, I think it’s the only place you can have drinks on the last night. People were saying, ‘What’s he doing here?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s okay, he’s with me’. He’s loads of fun.”
They’re not just drinking buddies. “We’ve been really good friends with him for a long time. He brings a different attitude to training with his history of swimming in Slovakia. It’s an old Eastern Block mentality of doing crazy amounts – 10km swimming sessions, 10 times a week. I found it interesting, what he could teach us.
“Triathletes get in and swim, but he talks about doing it properly,” Jonny explains. “If his catch goes, he’ll stop because he’s not swimming properly and if he’s tired he’ll swim really slowly and concentrate on his catch.” Varga’s race plan is also the same as the Brownlees: take it out as hard as possible and try and force an early breakaway on the bike. It makes for perfect synergy.
What now for Alistair Brownlee? He’s reached the peak of his sport at just 24 – the youngest Olympic triathlon champion in history. But 35-hour training weeks have to take a toll on the body and mind, and the pre-season air-boot [a solid cast to aid recovery from injury] now seems to be deployed annually. So is change on the horizon? Yes… and no.
“I want to be in Rio in four years’ time in the best possible shape – better than I am now,” he says. “But I can’t do another four years like that. I need it to be different. Looking to the Commonwealths in 2014, it’s not massively unreasonable to run a few 10km on the track to try and get into that, and possibly double-up with the triathlon. But triathlon will always be my main sport and there’s no chance of challenging Mo Farah… ever.
“Injury is the other problem. I’ll probably have an injury in January and will be doing all I can to get back for the World Series. The older I get, the more I learn that I don’t need to train quite so hard in the winter. Just keep ticking it along and get the basics right and not go too mad. I think if I can get anything right, it will be that over the next couple of winters.”